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tv   Frontline  PBS  June 28, 2011 10:00pm-11:00pm EDT

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around the lips. >> they had a dead baby. somebody was going to get convicted. >> frontline correspondent ac thompson of propublica, together with npr, investigates "the child cases." >> just because there were bruises doesn't mean that the child was ever hit. >> and raises serious questions about the state of pediatric forensics. >> there are people out there that have been wrongly convicted. >> and in our second story tonight... >> you're going to get a free education. >> ...are some for-profit colleges exploiting a generous new gi bill? >> there's so much money at stake that they have hired substantial numbers of recruiters to go after these vets. >> these people are putting their lives on the line. they shouldn't be treated like this. >> these two stories on this special edition of frontline. >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs
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station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation. committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. and by reva & david logan. committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation. dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by the frontline journalism fund, supporting investigative reporting and enterprise journalism. additional funding for this program and for frontline's expanded broadcast season is provided by the bill and melinda gates foundation.
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>> thompson: i'm heading to amarillo, texas, to investigate a case that began 11 years ago. it was a saturday morning, and a mechanic named ernie lopez was babysitting the children of a local doctor at his home. the youngest was six-month-old isis vas. >> i fed the kids breakfast. i had them on the kitchen table, and i had isis in her swing. she had her bottle but she wasn't eating it. so i got her out of the swing, and i went to go put her in the crib. and i went to the kitchen. i left her in the crib, and when i went back in there, i noticed that isis-- she was limp. she was just there, and her lips were blue.
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>> is she breathing right now? >> okay, i need you to keep doing cpr. >> thompson: ernie lopez' mother, rosa lopez, lived across the street. >> we started hearing sirens. that sticks in my mind, you know, that that was the beginning of the nightmare-- the sirens, the fire trucks, and then later on, the ambulance. ( sirens wailing ) >> i hit her on her thigh, on her leg, trying to get her attention. and i shook her a little bit. i jiggled her a little bit. i put my ear to her chest, and i heard her heart, just beating, just racing. >> thompson: ernie's brother eddie was called in. >> my mom came over, talked to me, and told me, "hey, could you go up to the hospital?" and i said, okay, so i drove on to the hospital. >> thompson: but at the hospital, doctors and nurses were alarmed. they found bruising and vaginal bleeding. and the last person alone with
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the child was ernie lopez. >> so ernie was calling me from the hospital. he called me one or two times, telling me that they were asking him lots of questions. >> i said, "ernie, what's going on." he goes, "bro, they're trying to accuse me of killing the baby and raping the baby." i was, like, "what?" >> he told me that he was trying to tell them, you know, that the baby had been sick for days. and they didn't want to hear that. they wanted to know just what was going on within the last 30 minutes or so.i >> detective moore would come in and ask me, you know, different questions, and then he said he wanted a statement from me. and i was so upset, i was crying. >> eddie called me and he told me that they had arrested ernie. >> they handcuffed him and put him in the police car. and we're, like, "where is the jail at?" because we've have never been in trouble. >> thompson: isis died the next day. medical examiner joni mcclain would perform the autopsy. to mcclain, the evidence pointed
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to sexual assault and murder. she found bruising on isis' head and body, hemorrhaging in the brain, and a laceration at the entrance to the vagina. in her final report, she called it homicide by multiple blunt force injuries. ernie lopez was charged with aggravated sexual assault. and, after a short trial, he was found guilty. before sentencing, medical examiner joni mcclain testified that the baby died from this violent assault. lopez was sentenced to 60 years in prison. >> you know, sometimes, it just hits me: "man, i'm in prison." i never thought i would be in prison, never in a hundrediok years.
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>> thompson: for the past year and a half, frontline, propublica and npr have been investigating medical examiners and the field of forensic pathology. we found a broken system in which the most basic principles of science and investigation are often ignored, with no national standards of any kind. >> it amazes me that such an important aspect of our government as medical legal death investigation doesn't have to have accreditation. i mean, everything else is accredited-- hospitals are accredited, barbers are accredited. >> thompson: we were told that some of the most difficult cases to investigate are those involving young children. here, sudden deaths are often assumed to be murder, and the accused. we decided to take a closer look. dr. jon thogmartin is chief medical examiner for st. petersburg, florida. tell me about the challenges
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that child autopsies pose. >> well, they're hard because of the emotional content that comes with them, the anger and despair that you'll experience on your own and others. they'll come in with a lot of expectations, and so you'll hav4 to shield yourself from that. you have to objectify the kid and just find out what happened to them. >> thompson: but finding out what happens in child cases is especially complicated..÷b >> it's going to take less disease than it does to kill an adult, and whatever you're looking for is going to be smaller and less. >> thompson: thogmartin has seen this firs0u22]' when he became chief medical examiner, he reversed two child death cases handled by his predecessor. >> i told them that there's... basically, the injuries that are described here aren't here. hemorrhages on the eyes. >> thompson: they imagined injuries that weren't there? >> they imagined injuries that weren't there. the mindset is prosecutorial-- homicide until proven otherwise. they get caught up in the anger, the emotion, the despair, and you can't do that.
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>> thompson: the problem thogmartin was talking about actually blew up into a national scandal a few years ago in canada. a rash of wrongful convictions led to a high-profile inquiry and a new set of standards. but in the u.s., few are talking about these solutions. let me know if these are nationally required. >> okay. >> thompson: are you required, in child death cases, to be a board-certified forensic pathologist in the u.s.? >> no. >> thompson: are you required to have any peer review of child death cases? >> no. >> thompson: are you required to review the medical records in child death cases before or after doing your autopsy? >> no. >> thompson: are you required to consult with specialists in the field on difficult child death cases? >> no >> thompson: after combing through court records, frontline, propublica and npr found nearly two dozen cases in
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the u.s. and canada in which people were prosecuted for killing children based on questionable autopsies and testimony. all of them were eventually cleared of wrongdoing. we found one of these cases just a day's drive from ernie lopez in el paso. >> hurry up and get my own place, and get a car and everything... >> thompson: monea tyson spent nearly two years in lockdown in the county jail before being acquitted of the murder of her two-year-old son, jayceon. >> that last thing i seen was my son not breathing, you know, and i seen his face turning pale and everything. >> thompson: the case was based largely on the findings of the medical examiner. >> it was kind of hard to comprehend that someone would charge you with something like that. i knew me and i knew what i didn't do, and it was hard to go through that. >> thompson: the autopsy on tyson's infant son was performed by dr. paul shrode. he found the case a homicide based on blunt force trauma to
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the head. but that's not what the forensic pathologist for the defense found. >> looking at the kind of force you need to create that kind of injury to the brain-- there was no skull fracture, there was no other injury to the brain in any other location. so it seemed to her that the injury described as blunt force trauma really didn't exist. >> thompson: in the end, the defense expert argued jayceon died of an infection. she also testified that some of the bruises dr. shrode saw as signs of abuse were birthmarks. the defense attorneys made a point of dr. shrode's lack of board certification, and >> he had falsified his resume in the first place. we had also discovered that he was involved in another capital case where a man was apparently on death row, due in large part to dr. shrode's testimony and his findings at another autopsy, which were apparently debunked,
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unfounded. >> thompson: dr. shrode declined our repeated requests for an interview. >> anybody who's doing an autopsy on a kid that's not board certified in the field, they should be blown out of the water. i don't know how they make it when they're not. anyone who's not consulting the specialists, not getting the medical records, i don't see how they make it on a day-to-day basis. i don't see how they're not run out of town on a rail. >> thompson: dr. shrode's background came under review by the county commissioners. they fired him just months before monea tyson's trial, but did not specify why. >> only kfox cameras were rolling as monea tyson heard the words "not guilty." >> at the end of this trial, the jurors asked to see monea tyson. in all the years that i've been doing this, i've never heard of that before. the jurors hugged her, they cried with her, they asked her when she was going to see her kids again.
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>> thompson: another problem in the child cases that we uncovered-- there is little agreement among medical experts on what causes children to die unexpectedly. pediatric science has undergone a revolution in recent years. one diagnosis, in particular,!-/ has come under fire-- shaken baby syndrome. take this case from decatur, georgia. i came here to meet melonie ware. ♪ ware was a daycare provider convicted of shaking a nine-month-old baby to death. she was sentenced to life in prison, but in 2009, at a retrial, the medical examiner's findings were called into question, and she was acquitted. >> all my life, i've loved children, just playing with children, being on their level. that's what i liked to do. >> thompson: it all began when
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ware, a certified childcare provider, was watching jaden paige at her home daycare center. the baby became unresponsive. she was taken in for questioning and arrested that night(xiír >> i was being taken away from my family, my husband, my kids, my parents. and there wasn't anything that i could do to stop it. >> thompson: the medical examiner, gerald gowitt, found three nearly-identical half-inch bruises beneath baby jaden's scalp. he argued at trial that melonie shook the baby violently, hitting the baby's head three times, causing the bleeding and swelling that added up to(w classic shaken baby syndrome. >> i was just in shock, because i never thought that they would actually come back and say that i did that i couldn't believe it. >> in baby cases, they approach a problem differently. if the caregiver says she did not injure this child, and we
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have no way to prove this child's death, then the caregiver must be the murderer. it's opposite with all legal theory. >> thompson: attorney tony axam ware's retrial. >> because we're more sensitive to the death of children, we have to say... it doesn't go unexplained. we say there must have been some violence involved. >> thompson: documents we found in the files of the medical examiner, gerald gowitt, raised questions about his independence from law enforcement. before doing the autopsy, dr. gowitt met with two prosecutors and four different detectives, all members of the county child abuse task force. >> they're supposed to be an unbiased entity of dekalb county. they are supposed to be totally unbiased. i don't think they should have met at all. >> thompson: we tried repeatedly to speak with dr. gowitt about the ware case, but he declined our requests. with his wife in prison, reggie ware didn't give up.
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>> i sold this house right here about six months later ... >> thompson: one by one, he began selling houses he'd acquired over years as part of his real estate business. it would cost him more than $700,000 to challenge his wife's conviction. >> this house right here was melonie's grandmother's house. they kind of got upset when i sold it. >> thompson: and reggie spent countless hours studying the case. >> i did, like, a crash course in college, i guess, of trying to learn about medical science, the new science that was coming out. then, i started tried to find information about shaken baby syndrome. >> thompson: in recent years, pediatric science has been changing. >> between the time of the first trial and the second trial, the science of shaken baby changed. they don't like to refer to it as shaken baby syndrome anymore. >> for 20 years, we were implicating shaking for just
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about every injury that we are seeing, particularly in the young infants. >> thompson: pediatric radiologist patrick barnes was a key prosecution witness in the most famous shaken baby case of all, the trial of louise woodward. woodward was a 19-year-old nanny charged in 1997 with shaking an eight-month-old baby to death, hitting his head, and causing fatal bleeding. with barnes' help, woodward was found guilty of second-degree murder. >> ( crying ) >> thompson: the case would be a turning point for barnes. >> i was really affected by all of that, and began to question my role as a pediatric radiologist and a neuroradiologist, as part of the child abuse team in these particular cases. shaking was irrelevant in that case, in retrospect.i >> thompson: but it was clear that something had happened to the child. >> the child had an impact injury. you can't get a skull fracture
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from shaking. you can't get a wrist fracture from shaking. >> thompson: but the prosecution's theory was this child was shaken. >> that's correct, and at that time, that was my theory, going into that case based on my previous 20 years of experience in child abuse, and accepting shaken baby syndrome. >> thompson: for decades, when barnes and others saw bleeding in the eyes, and bleeding and swelling on the brain, they assumed it was shaken baby syndrome. many doctors still stand by the diagnosis. but now, barnes says, science is proving the old assumptions wrong. >> when we started using more advanced imaging techniques such as mri, we started realizing there were a number of medical conditions that can affect a baby's brain and look like the findings that we used to attribute to shaken baby syndrome or child abuse. >> thompson: if you were called
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to testify in the woodward case today, what would you say? >> i would say that this is most likely a traumatic impact injury, that i would not be considering shaking, that this could be accidental, just as it could be non-accidental or abusive. and i would say that you cannot select out, accuse, indict or convict any particular caretaker based on the medical evidence that we have.p)/zb >> thompson: in melonie ware's case, the shaken baby theory seemed to come apart under scrutiny. it seems those near-identical bruises under baby jaden's scalp were actually caused by doctors at the hospital.
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three times, they tried to save his life by inserting needles into his head. jaden was born with sickle cell anemia, and top sickle cell experts testified that he died of the disease. before all this came out in the second trial, melonie ware had been in prison for 13 months. >> it was horrible. when you are in prison and they think that you harmed a child, it's not a place that you want to be. we had to move in with my parents, all of us together to make things work, so we could pay bills. it's just messed us up totally. even if i go to look for a job, and they pull my record and it says i was found not guilty, they still don't call me back. >> it's still showing up on the georgia dept. of corrections that she's still in prison. they say she's still incarcerated. >> it says that i'm still
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serving time in prison. z>> thompson: with your photo. >> yeah. >> thompson: so even though you are out of prison, you are still... >> the system. >> thompson: in the case of ernie lopez, it's been 11 years since six-month-old isis vas stopped breathing that saturday morning at the lopez home. >> ( crying ) >> no, don't give me that. eat the cookie. >> thompson: ernie lopez was the father of three children. he worked as a mechanic and, to make extra money, his wife babysat for her doctor, an ob-gyn named veronica vas. three days before that saturday, dr. vas had brought her three children to stay with the lopez family. lopez remembers noticing that baby isis had a number of unusual marks or bites on her head, which her mother acknowledged. >> dr. vas said they were flea
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bites, and i've never seen flea bites like that. maybe around here, here and her forehead and some on her neck. they were black. >> thompson: people at work later recalled his concern about the baby's condition. >> there was one episode where she had woken up, and she was crying and she was, like, gasping for air while she was crying. >> thompson: the lopezes were also concerned about the color of her stool. >> it had turned black. it was a tarry, almost sticky substance, and it was really hard to clean her, you know. >> thompson: ernie lopez said he asked dr. vas for a note to take isis to the doctor just before she left town. >> so i ran out the door and i asked her... i said we need a note, just in case something happens. and she said, "isis will be fine." >> okay, i need you to keep doing cpr.
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>> thompson: that evening, after isis was rushed to the hospital and staff began to suspect abuse, ernie lopez was arrested and charged with sexual assault of a minor. the trial would take place some three years later. his defense team called no expert witnesses to challenge the prosecution's case. >> one side, you had everybody, all the experts, all... whatever they wanted they got. and on ernie's side, nothing. they didn't have any experts. i was, like, "how is that fair?" >> i was just waiting to be called, and i never heard anything. >> thompson: after ernie lopez was arrested, child protective services asked psychologist edwin basham to evaluate whether he posed a threat to his own children. basham has done over 4,000 of these evaluations. if you had been called on
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ernie's behalf, what would you have said? >> i would have said that there wasn't a basis to suggest that he would be someone likely to have harmed a child, and it would be extremely out of character to imagine that he did that. and that would be... that's the results of the psychological exam. >> the defense does not present any opposing medical testimony, nor do they cross-examine the experts in any meaningful way. >> thompson: what did that do to his chances for being acquitted? >> i think they decreased his chances of being acquitted to zero. >> thompson: heather kirkwood is a pro bono attorney who is trying to overturn the lopezz+;ñ conviction. >> there's no evidence that she was sexually assaulted at all. there is evidence that she was ill and was essentially crashing in the days before her death. >> thompson: kirkwood uncoveredñ
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a stack of hospital records that the original medical examiner paid little attention to. then she assembled a team of pro bono experts to study the evidence. one of them, dr. michael laposata, oversees six million blood tests a year at vanderbilt university. he's an expert on bleeding disorders, and published an article on diseases that mimic the symptoms of child abuse. >> in this particular slide, yo. see bruises on the legs, and over on the right side in this other child, similar bruises. well, it turns out that only the child on the right has the bruises associated with child abuse. so, as you can see, if you are just allowing yourself to look at a bruise and saying, "is that child abuse?" this one has a disorder where he got the flu and his platelet count went down, and that makes you bruise easily. this one has a disorder where he got the flu and his platelet
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count went down, and that makes you bruise easily. and they can even be spontaneous bruises. but you can see how somebody like this might be considered a victim of abuse, and that's why the lab tests are so important. >> thompson: in the case of isis vas, the medical examiner, joni mcclain, recently said she didn't recall looking at the baby's lab tests. she came into the hospital and had a whole battery of tests done on her before she passed on. >> there were clear abnormalities, even in the routine lab tests, in this case. the tests called pt and ptt were markedly abnormal.lcó@ the platelet count was low. >> thompson: the labs showed isis had blood in her stool, an elateved white blood count, and abnormal liver function. and that her pt, ruleses a tedt that measures e t time i atakes blood to clot, was literally ofe the charts. >> it was clpiasc e,sictur as you're putting this puzzle together, of a disorder called dic, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and you can bleed from that. when your blood is so thin, when you're so un7ne to make a clot,
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you can just develop bruises and they can be spontaneous. so just because there were bruises doesn't mean that the child was ever hit. >> thompson: mcclain, who wouldn't give us an interview, said in recent testimony she didn't need the test results because this was such a "clear" case of blunt force injury. she said, "i don't get into ptt. i'm a forensic pathologist and all my people are dead. we don't run ptts." >> you have to put the whole picture together to be able to get to a diagnosis. it's a 500-piece puzzle. and sometimes, that 500-piece puzzle is a snowstorm. >> thompson: the state's experts, in this case, they'll say, "dr. laposata, you got it wrong. when a child or an adult has head trauma, they can get a blood clotting disorder. so, you know, that must be what happened-- that the child was beaten and got this clotting disorder. you got it wrong." what do you say to them? >> if you look at how long it takes to elevate your white count, to get dark tarry stools, to turn your liver function tests abnormal, something had to
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be going on for days-- days. >> thompson: laposata also says isis' blood disorder might explain the vaginal bleeding prosecutors said was a sign of sexual abuse. >> so, when you have rampant dic, you can just bleed fromth everywhere. so i think that to conclude that that was sexual abuse is an overstatement, given what we know about the whole picture in this case. >> the puzzling part of this is that the hymen was intact.y and so, when we got the autopsy slide, it did not show a laceration, and that was the prosecution's expert as well as our experts. >> thompson: at the trial, the prosecution focused almost exclusively on the 40 minutes before the 9-1-1 call, when ernie lopez was home alone with the baby. but little attention was paid to the behavior of isis' mother, who had said at the trial that
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isis was only suffering from a cold when she dropped her off at the lopez home. dr. vas also testified that, in the months before isis died, she had come to rely on the lopez family to help take care of her children. >> i won't even say "baby-sit," because they were basically living with us. when she would bring the children to the house, 99% of the times, they were in diapers, and we had to clothe them. >> thompson: so the doctor would bring over her children for you guys to baby-sit, and she wouldn't bring clothes for them, is that what you're telling me? >> yes, sir. did i feel like it was odd? yes, i did. >> thompson: the lopezes were not the first people to take care of the children. lorrie word was dr. vas's live-in nanny at this home for nearly a year. in a 2006 affidavit, word said she feared that veronica vas put the children at risk. and she said the doctor drank heavily while pregnant with isis. >> well, the day that she went into labor, veronica and her friend had cracked open a bottle
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of wine, drank the whole bottle, and then we went to the hospital, and i drove. when we got home from the hospital, she was gone withinhjz five minutes. >> thompson: did it make you worried about her as a parent? >> i have always worried about her as a parent. >> thompson: one night stands out most for lorrie word. she had arranged for a night off, and says dr. vas was supposed to be watching isis. but when she returned, dr. vas wasn't at home. >> there was blankets and stuff started moving around on the bed. and i just thought it was my1(c% cat. and i moved the sheets, and isis there was a couple of bottles around her and she was soaking wet. they had leaked. her diaper was full. >> thompson: how old was the baby? >> three months. >> thompson: how long do you think that she had been abandoned for? >> hours. >> thompson: dr. vas would later say she left the child alone for
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just ten minutes. >> she told me that she would go home and get a bottle of vodka and go sit in the garage. >> thompson: dena ammons is a nurse who worked with dr. vas. in an affidavit, she said vas became unreliable at work, and grew unable to care for herself or her children. >> i always considered doctor vas a friend, and you get to know your doctors pretty closely. she started to change, though. during the last year of her residency, especially when she was pregnant, she became very disorganized, her behavior was very strange, very bizarre. i told her i was concerned about her and the baby. and... and she just said, "don't worry, i'm a doctor, i know what i'm doing." >> thompson: dr. vas recently had her medical license suspended for alcohol abuse. frontline, propublica, and npr contacted dr. vas several times, but she declined to comment.
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ernie lopez has now been in prison for eight years. recently, his lawyers put all this new evidence in front of a judge at a hearing to ask for a new trial. but all attempts to overturn the verdict are being fought hard by prosecutors. >> i wasn't the d.a. when this got tried, but i know who they were and they were good prosecutors. >> thompson: randall sims, the current district attorney, would not comment directly on the case. and he discouraged statekó witnesses, including the medical examiner, from speaking with us. in your filings, your office, your prosecutors are saying, "we believe this man is guilty. we believe this was a just trial." is that it? >> yes, and jury found him guilty. and we're defending that conviction. cases that involve certain things, a lot of times, cause uo to have to rely on expert witnesses. we're not the expert witnesses, and you rely on those witnesses to... you believe to tell you the truth.
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and that's what you have to rely on. and obviously, the jury in this case did find him guilty, at one point, so we're locked in on following through with that. >> thompson: for ernie lopez, it's been 11 years since that saturday morning when baby isiso stopped breathing. >> if you told me that friday, "tomorrow, you'll be in a jail for the worst crime that somebody could commit-- sexual assault on a six-month-old baby and capital murder?" ( crying )kxl$z:i[ñ" never would i have thought that.
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>> thompson: the lopezes were set to take a family picture the day isis collapsed, but they never did. they photoshopped him in the next year. >> it's been real hard for him because he's missed so much of his children's life. >> thompson: his daughter nikki is saving pictures for him of the events he's missed. >> this is a picture of easter. >> you know, every morning when i go to work, i have got his car in front of my driveway, and it just reminds me of where he's at right now. >> thompson: in september 2010, the judge hearing lopez' appeal concluded that he had received ineffective counsel at the original trial. this moves the case to the texas court of criminal appeals, which will now decide whether to overturn the conviction. there is no word on when that will be.
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>> coming up next on this special edition of frontline... >> i do want to get my bachelors before i get out. >> are for-profit colleges exploiting a generous new gi bill? >> these veterans get this benefit one time, and if they don't get a quality education and something that can really help them with their lives, they'll never get it again. >> "educating sergeant pantzke" is next. >> smith: covering the wars in afghanistan and iraq, you spend a lot of time with young
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soldiers, barely out of high school, who are asked to do the toughest work the country asks of them. there are so many of them now fighting two wars, back to back. >> you guys have fun. ( gunfire ) >> smith: for most, this job is not so much a career as it is a tour of duty. they just hope to survive, make it back home, and begin the next chapter in their lives. back on base, they prepare for a transition to civilian life. a generous gi bill with billions of dollars for education is designed to ease their way. here, soldiers take college courses from a variety of schools, earning credits towards a hoped-for degree. >> i do want to get my bachelors before i get out. that's one of my long-term goals. >> right now, i'm working on my associates degree with ctc, and then i'm going to transfer to umuc and get my four-year. >> i'm going to transfer over to strayer.
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>> smith: "strayer." that caught my attention. it's one of those for-profit, mostly online colleges. were there other schools that you were looking at at the same time you were looking at strayer? >> yes, i was looking at university of phoenix. >> smith: last year, i investigated the for-profit sector, including the industry giant, university of phoenix. at that time, it was $6-billion- a-year industry with little government oversight. this is an online university. this is what it looks like. our report focused on the lengths schools go to attract students... >> are you thinking about going back to school? >> smith: ...their accreditation problems, and the staggering amounts of student debt. >> are the students and the u.s. taxpayers getting a good value? >> smith: soon after our report, congress held hearings to investigate. quickly, they became alarmed by how much gi bill money was going to for-profit colleges. >> all of a sudden, we found that there was a huge spike up in the amount of military money going to these schools-- 600%
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increase in just a couple of years. huge increase. and so, we started looking at that, and what we found is just really disturbing. >> smith: what disturbs harkin and other critics is that more than a third of all gi bill dollars are ending up at for-profit colleges. it's a disproportionate share, and it appears to be growing. >> overall spending on veterans' education went from less than $5 billion in 2009 to nearly $10 billion in 2010, and a lot of that is driven by for-profit colleges and their wooing of veterans. >> smith: veterans like mike digiacomo, who dreamed of pursuing a career in computer animation when he left the army. he had learned about a for-profit school, gibbs college in boston, from a tv ad. when he spoke to a recruiter there, he was told they had connections to some of the biggest hollywood studios. >> they did say they had connections to get into pixar. pixar was pretty much the
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stereotypical dream of all the animation students. so i thought that i would be able to live comfortably and support a family and... and do what i loved. >> smith: the school refutes it, but digiacomo claims gibbs never provided proper computer animation training.y >> nobody in my family had gone to college. we didn't know that there was bad colleges out there. we didn't know there was... you know, that if it advertised on tv that it wasn't a good school. we didn't know that kind of stuff. >> smith: digiacomo enrolled at another for-profit school, but soon realized he had run through much of his gi benefits and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to make ends meet. he dropped out before he got the degree he was after. >> i joined the military, i even risked my life jumping out of planes, and i wanted to go to college. honestly, i regret going to college for the rest of my life. >> it's an honor to serve those who serve our country. >> smith: the average veteran is
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bombarded with for-profit college ads. >> i wasn't sure, coming out of the military, what my plans would be. >> smith: a google search for "gi bill" turns up, a site which directs soldiers only to for-profit schools. even organizations like amvets, one of the nation's oldest veterans associations, is plastered with for-profit college ads. >> what's happened here is that there's so much money at stake for the for-profit schools that they have hired on substantial numbers of recruiters to go after these vets. so, you find many of these schools-- kaplan, university of phoenix-- with hundreds, literally hundreds, of recruiters going right after these veterans. >> they want you to look for the individual's pain, and then you paint the picture of how much better their life can be because they've actually gone to ashford to get a degree. >> smith: a former marine, wade cutler, was hired as a recruiter at the for-profit college ashford university. ashford has over 9,000 military students enrolled today.
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that's a 2,000% increase in the last three years. they hire veterans like cutler to gain the trust of gis over the phone. >> if a military person is actually speaking with someone that's actually been in the military, there's a certain lingo or a certain slang that they're associated with that's very common with them. >> smith: give me an example of that. >> well, i mean, if it's a marine, then, of course, i would immediately say to them "hoo-rah, marine," or i would say "semper fi." and they would readily know that you were in the military and you had prior service. and, so, it's easy to establish that trust. >> i mean, if you wanted to keep your job, you had a certain number of students you needed to enroll. >> smith: brad seliga, a former national guardsman, also recruited for ashford. >> you'd have these meetings, maybe on monday and say, "what's your projected number for this week?" you know, everybody goes around the table, "i think i can enroll 'x' amount of students"-- maybe three students or five students. and then, at the end of the week, you went over-- did you make that number? did you exceed that number? if you didn't make that number, what was the reason? >> i was only an enrollment advisor for a short period of
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time. >> smith: cutler said he tried to make his numbers until one day he became disillusioned by how many vets he would sign up only to see them drop out. some of those people, they don't have the regimen, they don't have the discipline, they don't have the ability to actually go forward. >> smith: was there any time that the university said, "look, if you think that the soldier is not ready for this kind of study, don't sign them up"? >> no, they don't say that. >> smith: what do they say? >> they say, "everybody is a good fit. the military is a perfect fit." >> smith: ashford's parent company, bridgepoint education, says cutler and seliga's remarks run contrary to the school's policy, but they declined our request for an interview. ( phone rings ) >> hello? >> hi. is steven there? >> yeah, this is him. >> smith: frontline acquired telephone recordings of recruiters from westwood college, a for-profit school based in denver, colorado. >> i get excited when i have military students because, you know, they have the discipline, they have the drive, they have the motivation. >> smith: the recruiters tell the military applicants they'll receive special treatment... >> oh, yeah, we're on
10:42 pm as a military-friendly school. >> smith: ...instruct them how to maximize their gi bill benefits... >> the gi was actually bumped up. we have our own military department here that works with our military students. >> smith: ...and share job and salary prospects. >> right out of the gate, it looks like you have the ability to make anywhere between $72,000 to $82,000. >> what do you want to do? what color is that? >> smith: it was a westwood recruiter who told jason longmore, a navy vet, that he could earn a bachelors degree in just three years. after his wife's ms caused her to lose her job, longmore needed to get one quickly. >> it felt like this was the right path, especially with my situation with my wife and my baby, and a whole new life... a whole new life starting. this was going to be the right foot to set on and... and continue. >> smith: but six months into his program, he learned from a prospective employer that his westwood degree wasn't worth much. >> so if i was applying for a jobs and i went against somebody with a construction management
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degree from colorado state university and i had my degree from westwood college, i wouldn't be on par with that same person, although that's what i felt i was supposed to be getting through the education that they giving me. >> smith: and when longmore went to transfer to a state school, he hit another snag. his credits were no good. we asked westwood about this, and they told us they never made any promises about credits. they pointed out longmore had initialed a box that read, "westwood college makes no guarantee of credit transfer." longmore says he was fooled. >> me and my wife both asked multiple times, "does that mean that their credits don't transfer?" and he said, "don't worry, everything will transfer. we had to put that in there because every college has credits that won't transfer, so it has to be in there. it's fine." if they would have told me directly that it wouldn't transfer, i would not have gone to westwood college. >> too often at for-profit colleges, the emphasis is on recruiting the student, bringing them in the front door, getting the access to the federal money,
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and then leaving them to fend for themselves. >> smith: dan golden, an investigative reporter for bloomberg news, has written extensively about some of the most extreme military recruiting efforts at for-profit colleges. >> i went to a marine base in north carolina, and i found that one of the for-profit colleges was sending a recruiter to the wounded warriors' barracks, where she was signing up brain-injured marines who even had difficulty remembering what courses they were taking. and it's quite a widespread phenomenon. >> smith: take the case of sergeant chris pantzke. he always planned to return to college after he came home from iraq. he had joined the army in 2003. two years later, he was promoted to sergeant and became a squad leader charged with protecting fuel trucks driving through battle zones west of baghdad. he served there for nine months until one day a car bomb attack inflicted a traumatic brain injury, or tbi.
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>> i started getting moody, angry. i was so depressed that i did become suicidal. i was hospitalized, and they diagnosed me with ptsd. >> smith: pantzke's story was first reported by dan golden in bloomberg news. pantzke had been drawn to the for-profit school art institutes. >> creativity is a powerful thing. >> smith: art institutes has over 5,000 vets currently enrolled. pantzke says he was attracted by all the possibilities, but was worried he wouldn't cut it. >> one of the very first things, i told them that i had ptsd. and she said, "oh, you'll do fine. we'll take care of you. you're... no... not a problem." you know, "you're good. don't worry about it. we'll take care of you." i looked at what they had. they had a really good online photography course. it was a bachelor of science. so, i said, "degree, photography, okay."
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and about a day later, i get a phone call-- "you're approved. you're in school." it's like, "okay." >> smith: the school would collect over $70,000 of pantzke's gi bill money and other federal funds, but he was struggling to keep up with his coursework. >> after getting into the class, there wasn't a whole lot of help. even though he would email them it would take them, you know, days, maybe even a week, before they got back to him. >> smith: then, the school flunked him. >> it just didn't work. it wasn't working right. >> i went to see him in his home in... in southern virginia. and i'll never forget, he showed me some holes in the wall near the computer that he did his course on. he explained that he had gotten so frustrated that with his inability to deal with the courses that he had punched those holes in the wall. here was a veteran who had given his health in the defense of his country, and the taxpayers were footing the bill for him to go to college. and yet, the money was not
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serving any noticeable purpose except to distress him. >> smith: the art institutes say they offered pantzke extensive tutoring services at no charge, but they declined our request for an interview. veterans have been a growth market for your schools. >> they've been a growth market for all of higher education. >> smith: we brought our concerns to harris miller, until recently the industry's chief washington representative. the for-profits spend more on marketing... >> yes, they do. >> smith: ...and outreach. >> yes. >> smith: how does that contribute to the fact that they're signing up at a greater rate than they are to the other schools? >> we believe, based on conversations we've had with the various veterans' organizations, that they believe that their members are very well-equipped to understand all their options. >> smith: you're saying the veterans are well advised? >> absolutely. >> smith: they know what they're getting into? >> absolutely. >> smith: they're not subject to sales pitches that come too fast and furious and misinform them? >> they are not allowed to be misinformed. it's against the law.
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in addition, they... >> smith: it's against the law. that doesn't mean that it doesn't get done. >> i'm saying it's against the law. >> smith: the agency that helps enforce that law is the department of veterans affairs. the va's keith wilson oversees the gi bill. have you taken action against any school for over-aggressive pursuit of veterans? >> we do. it's... it's not... it doesn't happen a lot, i guess, is what i would say. but there are situations where that does occur, and we do have the authority to do that and we've done it. >> smith: the va couldn't tell us how often; we could only find one recent example. are you worried that veterans are not fully informed about what choice they're making? >> no, i believe veterans are informed about the decisions they're making. and we're always working to get them better information. >> smith: but if a veteran goes to your site, will they find rankings and comparisons and the kind of information that the fda publishes, for instance, on food packaging about content?
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>> not on the gi bill site. yeah, we're working in that direction, but right now we don't have that, no. >> smith: this interview was conducted in late january. do you think there's some urgency here about getting more information out there to veterans? >> there is. >> smith: then, this spring, as we were finishing this segment, the va finally launched a new feature on its web site, providing the kind of information we were asking about, including this statistic that shows graduation rates at for-profit schools stand at just 28%, half of what they are at traditional schools. >> we said to the va, "is it working? is the money we're putting in the gi bill that's going to schools-- for-profit schools as well as public schools-- is that money really working to put these people to work, to give them the jobs that they need?" and, unfortunately, the results were discouraging. >> they just basically give the money to the student and say good-bye. they don't care where they go or what school they attend to. they do no accounting on that, they do no supervision of that, and they don't track it. >> smith: tracking what happens to veterans going to for-profit
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schools isn't easy, but one important measure is jobs. some for-profit graduates compete well on the job market, but, according to a company called payscale, graduates from the for-profit colleges we covered earn, on average, % to 15% less than graduates at public state schools. >> these people that are putting their lives on the line to defend our values and defend the way our country exists, they shouldn't be treated like this. they should be treated better. >> smith: ted daywalt, a navy vet, is the president of vet jobs, the largest job listing site for veterans. daywalt recently polled employers on how they value for-profit degrees. >> human resource managers were telling me that if they have two people of similar work backgrounds, and one had a degree from an online school versus a well-known brick and mortar school, they'll go with the brick and mortar school.
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>> smith: how many human resource folks have told you that? >> in the last week, because i've been calling a bunch of them, probably about 30. >> smith: you run into any who say, "no, i don't make any distinction." >> no. >> smith: today, mike digiacomo is working at a retail copy center. his wages have been garnished, and he's having trouble paying back his private student loans, which he says have carried interest rates as high as 18%. >> look, these veterans get this benefit one time. it's a one-time shot. and if they don't get a quality education and something that can really help them with their lives, they'll never get it again. >> smith: shortly before this broadcast, the art institutes wrote to frontline to say they've readmitted sergeant pantzke. but he's already run through more than half of his gi bill benefits and has had to borrow another $15,000 to make ends meet. he says he worries it won't be enough to finish the $82,000 program and get his degree.
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and jason longmore? he's now enrolled at the university of colorado as a civil engineering student. tuition costs half of what he was paying at westwood, but he's had to start over. none of his 52 credits from westwood was accepted. >> from spending my gi bill money that i worked hard for in the beginning to get without thinking that i was on a track to be successful, and then finding out that with all the money i had spent and all the time i had spent was all for naught was pretty depressing. >> smith: longmore says all that has made it impossible to afford his home. he's fixing it up to sell. >> i feel like i upheld up my end of the bargain. i don't feel it was upheld on the other end.
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>> frontline continues online with more on diseases that can mimic child abuse, and more on why some experts are rethinking shaken baby syndrome. explore the reporting of our parters, npr and propublica, on their websites. then, watch "college, inc.," our 2010 investigation of the for-profit industry. >> ...and what we found is just really disturbing. >> follow frontline on facebook and twitter or join the discussion at then, tell us what you think at >> frontline is made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting.
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major funding is provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation. committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. and by reva & david logan. committed to investigative journalism as the guardian of the public interest. additional funding is provided by the park foundation. dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. and by the frontline journalism fund, supporting investigative reporting and enterprise journalism. additional funding for this program and for frontline's expanded broadcast season is provided by the bill and melinda gates foundation. captioned by media access group at wgbh >> for more on this and other frontline programs, visit our website at
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